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Deus Ex could easily have been a comedy. On paper, the idea of throwing a bunch of real-world conspiracy theories into a blender and sprinkling in a few of your own does not sound like the basis of a well-executed narrative videogame.

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29 thoughts on “Discussion: Hanlon’s Erasure

  1. Quillette lol. Snowdon opens with Russell Brand’s “The Great Reset” conspiracy theory, and then says that Monbiot is conspiracizing just as much when he says the Great Reset was introduced by a Heartland Institute staffer… because even though the staffer wrote an op-ed called “Introducing the ‘Great Reset,’” other right-wingers were already talking about it! Hope Snowdon went for a nice run after that stretch.

    There’s a big issue there with conspiracy theories in art and life. Conspiracies are a great hook for stories, and stories where the thing that happens turns out not to have a deep conspiratorial explanation may be… not so thrilling. Trying to think of something where the conspiracy theorist turned out to be a crank distracting everybody from the real problem and all I’m coming up with is the Jude Law character from Contagion, who turned out to have a lot of real-life imitators. And I think the conspiracy strain goes way before the X-files; every spy thriller and many Hitchcock movies are about this, and even the very mystery novel gives conspiracy theories on a small scale, with wily detectives teasing out intricate plots instead of bored cops not bothering to find out who shot somebody in front of ten witnesses who won’t talk because they justifiably mistrust the police.

    There’s also Pynchon, I used to play Steve Jackson’s Illuminati game when I was in high school and I was lucky that, when I looked at the books he cited, I decided to read The Crying of Lot 49 instead of Illuminatus! which seems real bad. And I guess The Crying of Lot 49 technically ends with ambiguity about whether the conspiracy is real or a practical joke.

    Carl Muckenhoupt is replaying Deus Ex and had similar thoughts about how it hits different now. Honestly, never having played it, I always thought it was supposed to be funny.

  2. I tricked you! I wrote out a big wall of text before I even got to the part that was included to troll me!

  3. i watched Edge of Darkness (not the Mel Gibson version, if it needs to be said) for the first time a few years ago. and to be honest, the conspiracy in it—far from the globe-spanning secret society power struggles and god-creation of deus ex—felt small and shabby enough to be believable: mostly the acts of one corporation seeking to push through a lucrative financial deal; and the secrets come to light mostly because of the coverup attempt.

    Sable has been on my “yes, maybe” list for a long time now. i tried the demo before the full release and was put off a little by its too-zeldaish structure and by the clunky ui and controls (i dont know if the latter were polished up at all in the final game or not). but now that one quote from the article has moved it over to the “probably not” list: i want places to epxlore! i dont want to chase floating icons over a map.

  4. Original title of this newsletter: Diss Ex

    Sorry about the FT link. I swear that was available for free until I f£%king published it. Here’s an alternative link.

    Matt, I know. Quillette. I swear this is the only thing I’ve ever read there. And, no, it didn’t make me want to go back.

    That’s a good point that conspiracy theories make for thrilling plots and, hoooo boy, it certainly does go back a long way. I think crank plots are usually handled very differently, the focus being on the ‘crank’ activity than the rando disinfo they’re handling. A shooter who thinks he’s saving the world from the margins or something (although I’m struggling to find an example, this feels familiar).

    Jude Law is an unusual example as we really get under the skin of his character and his motivations. However, it seems like he is guided by avarice by the end of the film rather than belief in the Truth. I feel like we do see stories about conspiracy theories running riot but usually they are background support for fascist governments (e.g. Babylon 5).

    I did a quick search for people having some post-COVID commentary on Deus Ex but came up empty. Then again, search engines are bullshit these days.

    Damn it, you trolled the troller.

    vfig Oh, it’s actually nice to hear someone find the conspiracy feel believable. Edge of Darkness had a big impact on me years ago but I’m never quite sure if it was nostalgia or not. (The Shadow Line, however, has a terribly unbelievable rationale underpinning the conspiracy. Fun, regardless.)

    And I should add that I’ve also gone off Sable after reading Kat’s piece 🙂

  5. I was just commenting somewhere the other day that nobody would make Deus Ex during QAnon, and I also suffer inexplicable pain in my left arm! This is solid basis to conclude that we are, in fact, the same person. Our person should maybe go see a doctor because mystery left arm pain can be a leading indicator of heart attack, in the scale of weeks ahead. Doubly so if accompanied by shortness of breath.

    At the time, Deus Ex felt current. It aspired to play like and hit the tone of an 80s action flick. Its looks came from popular in the 80s cyberpunk. But the animating idea was decidedly post 1989, the desperate search for an explanatory framework for a world where socialists drank champagne in Davos, CEOs looted their companies like Soviet apparatchiks, and you were told to pack up your factory to cross the Pacific, cause your History had Ended. Deus Ex, for me, ended in an absurd, nihilistic sendup. This mess is what you get for seeking order, now man up and explode some aliens. The full Rambo experience.

    In my 1980s, I could tell conspiracy theories by the acrid ink on the brown paper I was reading them on. Respectable newspapers were bleached white of unofficial narratives. I was a bit too young for literal clipped sections, but lived through transitions to pirate, then private radio and TV, then a free Internet, now an ever less free Internet. You can argue that electrons don’t smell of context and it’s easier to lead me astray. I think that every step created less of a shared reality. I don’t feel it diluted the truthfulness of my understanding, it just vastly expanded the areas I am modestly wrong / right on.

    There’s a group of people who believe freemasons rule the world, and there’s a group that will *gladly* tell you the tale of the Italian P2 lodge, and these groups dismiss the outlook of the other. There’s the claim that one Clinton engages in pederasty in a pizza parlour basement and there’s the claim that the other Clinton sates their hebephilia on a remote private island, and exactly one of them is obviously true. And then affinity makes it weird when both parties are yourself: When a foreigner goes to Thailand and marries a very young girl with a lost birth certificate, we cheer for the court decision that finds against Elon Musk for defamation of this diver. When Alex Jones suggests that the Man puts chemical in the water that turn frogs and the listeners gay he’s clearly ridiculous, when it’s suggested that corporations leak hormones in the water that force frogs to transition to the detriment of at least this species that smells true and is wholly separate.

    The above is designed to generate recognition, annoyance and despair. This is the method of postmodern propaganda. Pre-modern propaganda, your Enlist! posters and Tiktok influencers tries to saturate you with peer pressure. Modern political propaganda tries to elicit action on a designed fiction about the world. See both sides on the China – Falun Gong information campaigns. Post-modern propaganda throws every possible permutation at you, you tire out and give up on the journey at some pleasant spot. The current Russian way if you will. It wants you to give up. This isn’t the Witness, you don’t get unmediated observation, you’re going to stop eventually anyway.

    Huh, I think I ended up rewriting the post more or less. Which makes sense, it’s established we’re the same person. I think I expect to be unable to know more of the world than you, so I treat the modern informational landscape as a benefit, but ymmv. I’m also more tolerant of the idea of successful, impactful conspiracies: since I’ve apparently decided to rag on Italy, the Red Brigades had several thousand members, and they stuck around and did stuff for a while. Now imagine what you can quietly do if you have a lot less members and a lot more money.

  6. “we cheer for the court decision that finds against Elon Musk for defamation of this diver”
    Shared reality check–Musk won that lawsuit, right?

    In one of those hm hm, moments, the reason he won is that the respected defamation lawyer the diver hired, who had won verdicts for the man falsely accused of the Olympic bombing which was carried out by an anti-abortion terrorist who was part of a quite boring network out in the open, turned out to be a kook who would go on to file a lot of Trump’s most conspiracist lawsuits.

    Also as far as I can tell the Thai woman the diver is in a relationship is visibly not that young and they met in the UK.

  7. You’re right about the court case. My only memory of it is from a Discord discussion where it was incidentally mentioned, and apparently misreported – I had tuned out the breathless Musk reporting by then. I went looking for the wife pictures, and, while they make me uncomfortable, maybe I’m not good enough a judge of what a Thai woman of a certain age should look like.

  8. nothing much to say, just glad to see you pop up in my e-mail again, and enjoyed some of the articles you posted!

  9. Just going by ones like this, she looks a decent bit younger than him but, even if I didn’t know, at least thirty.

  10. I adore the X Files. There are two episodes that encapsulate why I love it.

    The first is one where Mulder is very dispirited because he and Scully have been tracking this conspiracy for years and they have nothing to show for it. Not only do they have no hard evidence – because reports and filing cabinets and alien bodies and so on keep disappearing juuuuust before they can be secured – but Mulder is also doubting whether the conspiracy *is even real*. In the course of this episode, Mulder gains access to some hard evidence – yay! – but then it is taken away from him – boo! But the difference this time is that it is taken away by an actual honest-to-God alien figure silhouetted by a bright light. Mulder ends the episode happier than we’ve ever seen him: sure he lost his evidence, but he has gained FAITH. He can’t prove anything, except to himself – but that’s enough.

    The second episode – actually a two-parter, I think – involves the eternal question of “Are the aliens real, or is it actually a gigantic conspiracy by the US government to distract people from real problems?” (Incidentally, it seems like IRL, the US government had a policy of encouraging alien conspiracies because it divided their critics and kept them off-kilter. Not a conspiracy per se, because I don’t think they explicitly faked anything, but an interesting strategy.) I would rather not spoil this two-parter, because it was such fun for me to watch, but basically it turns on the premise that the US government are definitely up to something – but is it possible that Mulder has been on the wrong side the whole time (the side of the alien conspiracy, and blind faith) when he should have been on the side of rationality, and of careful, skeptical examination of the evidence?

    This is why I think the X Files is not a show about real-life conspiracies, but a show about faith in things greater than yourself. Mulder has faith, much like a Monk convinced that God exists because of occasional flashes of things that seem like miracles. Scully, by contrast, is rational and skeptical. Where Mulder is “religious” (he believes in aliens, who might be considered Gods), she is “secular”. It’s an updating of the eternal American religious question (“So are we actually going to separate Church and State? We were kidding about that, right?”), but in a new, post-Cold-War context: “Is there something greater than us? Is humanity the driver of its own fate, or are there forces beyond our power that decide where we’ll end up?” At the End of History, will humanity’s future be decided by humanity itself, or by some deity-level Other?

    The answer’s complex (humanity’s fate will be determined by its actions, but no single person or group of people can determine those actions, so it feels like we have zero control). I think Deus Ex was tapping into this as well: the final choice of the game is “What should humanity’s future be like?” Do you have faith in some cybergod, or in small communities, or do you have zero faith in people as a whole and you think we always need to be guided by a mysterious paternalistic hand?

    I guess the reason DX and The X Files don’t work for me any more is that it’s pretty clear that, for me and my circle at least, the distinction is not between secular humanity and some version of god. It’s between the forces of populism, reaction and misinformation and the forces of collective action, compassion and using correct information to make sensible judgements. I have no interest in believing in aliens or secret AIs or stolen elections or secret plagues or anything like that. I still have faith – like Mulder – but it’s in the idea that if people are decently educated and exposed to decent information they will collectively make decent decisions.

  11. Sorry, this might end up as a wall of text, but I’ve studied conspiracy theories on and off for ten years, even before the recent conspiracy boom, and the topic still flares me up. And the first article you linked really flared me up.

    There is one point made by the author that is sensible: conspiracy theories are for others, not for us. We are truth seekers, they are fools that read too much into things. But, “conspiracy theory” is also an analytical category. It wants to simply denote, but has a strong negative connotation. To study something as a conspiracy theory is to imply it’s false, even if we’re trying to study it as neutrally as possible (much of the serious sociological literature on the topic does this).

    Now, the question for me is: what makes a conspiracy theory? The belief? The way it’s presented? The way it’s believed? The people who believe it? The way it spreads? I’ve gone back and forth on this, and I’m somewhat convinced that the category, even analytically, is unsalvageable. It will always have a negative connotation, it will always be used to discredit claims without seriously taking them to task. On the one hand, I think we should at least separate the question of the truth of a claim from the way it’s presented/believed; on the other, how we understand the world, especially in the social sciences but more in general, is often frighteningly close to how conspiratorial thinking operates, so the claims themselves have to account for something.

    Back to the article: its objective is transparent in the “Correlation Coefficient” table, and the “theories” it presents. How can you consider Birthers, Truthers, Sandy Hook deniers, climate deniers on the same page as people who suspect that Russia manipulated US politics, or that Trump made a deal with Putin? It’s clear that the latter are discredited by association with the former. But the spiral doesn’t end here. Isn’t the claim I just made somewhat conspiratorial? Am I also a crazy person?

    I don’t believe that people who spread conspiracy theories are crazy, or fools. I think that they are employing an interpretive framework, not to “feel superior and perceptive” (another jab by the author, citing someone that uses the word “Voodoo” in a title, which disqualifies anything they say) but to try and understand the world. A dangerous framework, to be sure, but a framework nonetheless. Its prevalence says something about the present moment (though what is debatable). But it’s not just for the marginalised or uneducated, nor simply for the paranoid. And, especially, it doesn’t automatically invalidate all narratives that employ the rhetorical/analytical device of a “hidden power” acting for nefarious ends.

    A small addendum on the actual content of the newsletter (then I’ll shut up, promise). As you said, Joel, the conspiracy narrative maps very well onto the hero narrative. Save for one detail: conspiracy theories never really resolve. You live to fight another day, but the hidden actors are still there to manipulate and deceive. You can recruit some to the cause, achieve small victories, but the theorising is never complete. There is always another deception, another clue to decipher, because in the deciphering are both the social and interpretive meaning of conspiracy theories. Maybe that’s the key difference between them and other forms of theorising/knowledge production.

  12. Matt W’s thoughts about consipracies that turned out to be nbd – the thing I thought of there was a particular walking-and-talking game from 2016 that I don’t want to spoil. Turned out to just be lonely, worried people looking for explanations for why the world hurt them, and I loved that as a story. Seemed like I was in a minority for that response though.

    Speaking of Razors, I’ve chatted to a very well meaning person who believed the moonlanding was faked. I’m not sure if they believe that anymore or not. From their point of view, the moonlanding was such a supremely complex and unlikely achievement that Occam’s Razor actually favours the conspiracy. I totally understand that argument, but I think what’s missing is the realisation that co-ordinating the extremely expensive and wide-reaching cover-up would be even more complicated than going to the gosh dang moon. People prefer 4D chess – like the belief that your phone is spying on your conversations to serve you ads, rather than thinking about how you give all your data away for free anyway so why they need to spy on you?

    For Hanlon’s Razor though, I have a drum I bang from here on this hill of soapboxes that I’ll die on: Hanlon’s Razor is excellent advice for day-to-day life and personal interactions, but I don’t think it applies to governance and politics, where often incompetence is a tactic, and malice is the goal. E.g., it’s not unusual in politics when some corruption or cruelty is uncovered, for media and public to respond like “well that was silly, they’re not very good at their job are they?” They were successfully evil, but we respond like they blundered at being virtuous. In fact, it’s like the incompetence was that they got caught – an admission that cruelty is the point.

    Side note: whilst a lot of good people who had their formative years in the 90s with The X-Files probably had a lot of worthy experiences and learned some critical thinking from it … I wonder how much influence that Fox show had on people who ended up as pizza gate / Q types.

  13. James/Lorenzo: “conspiracy theories never really resolve” — isnt that, in the end, the feature of frameworks spun out of deep-set beliefs, what you might call Faiths? you defend your belief by discarding the upper layers of theory and growing new ones. in X-Files terms, Mulder and Scully are each driven by their own faith: regardless of the evidence against that he encounters, Mulder still keeps on believing in aliens/supernatural explanations and formulates new theories along those lines; regardless of the totally inexplicable events she witnesses, Scully stubbornly looks for some kind of rational explanation. while that of course can be ascribed to the characters of a tv show needing to retain their essential character, isnt that generally the case with people too, even scientists? did Einstein ever make peace with quantum theory playing dice with the universe?

    (on this topic, i cant help but think of the nonsense—in hindsight—in Creation magazine that i read as a teen. while there were a few interesting ideas here and there, they were sandwiched between such volumes of absurdities presented as equal evidence that the whole creation idea—and thanks to their perhaps more convincing theological arguments alongside it, whatever christian faith i had—collapsed under its own weight. one prime absurdity i recall was an article asserting that the Greek alphabet, its letter names in order, was in fact the text of a Mayan poem about Noah and the flood. the stuff about fire-breathing dinosaurs or whatever was exciting, but that one was simply ridiculous on its own terms. anyway, i suppose this ties into the paragraph above a little, as the act of rapidly discarding the theory shells and replacing them with new ones mid-devate is termed a “Gish gallop” after one of the people behind that magazine.)

    MrBehemo: the game you mention: that conclusion irked me not because it was innately unbelievable, but because the game itself, not just its characters, strongly presented itself as if the conspiracy were true. it felt like an unearned gotcha, or a clumsy magicians trick when it tried to explain things away. i remember feeling similarly irked by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but at least in its ending scene it communicates that the whole thing was about subjectivity and point of view and the power to self-decieve—and i dont think that game was built on a similar foundation.

  14. ‘Mother, should I trust the government?’

    So warbled Waters back in 1979. I submit the whistles and jeers the line evokes (and was intended to evoke) at any live performance, when considering whether the left is unblemished by a conspiratorial bent. And I say that as a self-professed lefty who also thinks Waters is one of the few honest people still operating in public life.

    While I have some sympathy for concerns about conspiracy theorists always being right in popular media, I’m in agreement that this might be looking down the wrong end of the telescope – that the trend is of a general preference for dramatically interesting narratives. Even with Lot 49, the ambiguity promises a dramatic pay-off either way – the conspiracy is real, or the protagonist is losing her grip on reality.

    I don’t really see a problem with this, as long as we trust audiences to be able to keep a healthy separation between fantasy and reality. But then I suppose that’s very much what’s under the microscope here!

    Deus Ex uses absurdity to describe an absurd world. Conspiracy theories are used like a caricature; the exaggerated brush strokes, inaccurate in their own right, nevertheless highlight an underlying truth: that even without active conspiracy, without secret bases under the Paris catacombs, the powerful and wealthy just individually pursuing their own interests can still be huge drivers of consolidation and inequality. The consensus that we live in a free and fair society increasingly comes under strain, until either the consensus or the society breaks down.

    These always seemed to me to be the anxieties and ambiguities that the game concerned itself with, and even when I was too young to really formulate concrete ideas, I could get a sense of them just from existing in its world. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

    I always thought Ross Scott had a pretty strong assessment of it:
    https://youtu.be/rxOKEsBx4NU?t=1296

  15. Yowsers, lots of comments here, apologies for radio silence. All my time has been on sorting out the Thinky Stream and getting the next The Year We Fell episode out. I now have to get Side by Side finished by Tuesday :S

  16. Thank you for including my Sable article despite the fact that every human being on the planet disagrees with it.

  17. BABBDI is so fucking good. Like capital-G-good. Like a 90’s Warren Spector’s wet dream.

  18. Kat! Can I get a vibe check on Knytt Underground? It’s an open world game, it is full of tchotchkes to gather, and it pops up quest markers whenever you take a quest… but it is thematically self-conscious that all these are things you should be doing because you like doing them. The sidequest in the first tutorial chapter is to look for a child who winds up returning home without you, and whose parent yells at you for not looking at her. Your reward wasn’t a pat on the head from an NPC, and definitely not anything in-game helpful. Doing the quest was its own reward.

    And in the main game there’s currency, and the main quests require collectables and/or currency to unlock them; but there are way more of these things than you need for your goals (this is immediately evident from the inventory screen) so in the end you’re getting them because they’re there. And there are lots of quests that are “useless” in-game, like one where you get paid in advance to deliver something, and when you deliver it anyway the NPC says “Thanks! Our usual guy just leaves it on the ground!” But this also leads you to an important beat in a story that’s not the main quest.

    But then the point is that all this is rewarding. Beautiful backdrops, immersive music, and Certified Genius platforming. You can challenge yourself or just luxuriate in the world.

    (Aside: There may not be a collectable on top of Everest but if Mallory had made it he would’ve unlocked a lot of in-game stuff!)

    I would say that your answer to this might determine whether I’m interested in Sable, because it looks like very my thing and I feel like I might be able to get past your concerns especially with Meg Jayanth writing, but… no Mac port. 🙁

  19. Always glad to read another newsletter. I totally understand that you can’t always get them out. I love keeping up with what you do, you always give me a lot to think about.

  20. Hi Matt! I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you hanging because I haven’t played Knytt 🙂 I think it’s in my Steam library somewhere…Anyhow if Sable looks like Your Thing then definitely give it a weekend. Pretty much everyone loved it, so you may love it too. Oh just to be clear I love Meg Jayanth’s writing! I think I say in the article that it was a high point for me. She’s bloody great.

  21. Well I do recommend Knytt Underground! It is my most favoritest game and as you may gather I think it does a lot with the open world and playing with the question of why we are playing a game at all, which is to say with the meaning of life. (You can also get a couple of direct answers to the meaning of life in the game, but they’re pretty well hidden and also unsurprising.) Anyway I’d be very interested to hear what you think.
    You did mention how much you liked Meg’s writing! Maybe I should equip the Windows box I have with enough stuff to run it but it seems a little hard to justify doing that rather than another thing… or attempt to get access to Breath of the Wild but I have never got the hang of Nintendo controls.

  22. Also, Behemo, vfig, can you drop the name of that game in rot13 or something? We’re past the statute of limitations on spoilers and this is driving me up the wall.

  23. OK I am going to bump this in case Kat gets comment notifications to say I saw what you said about Gris and, play Knytt Underground! That’s a platformer that really has something to say about grief and many other things! I’m pretty sure that somewhere in these comments Joel makes a similar complaint about Gris, that the lights are on but nobody’s home, and I recommend Knytt Underground, which is what I usually do for everything. Because I love it! However I cannot find this because the big Goog has given up on searching most of the comments here.

    OK I was also thinking that I should say something about conspiracy theories. Because when I am not training people to solve puzzles (teaching logic) I am something of a social epistemologist, and the notion of a “conspiracy theory” is notoriously hard to pin down there! “Conspiracy theory” certainly connotes that it is unjustified, but if we define it as unjustified, then it is not a helpful epistemic category—if you already need to know beliefs are unjustified in order to know they’re a conspiracy theory, then knowing they’re a conspiracy theory doesn’t help you figure out they are unjustified. But sometimes being a conspiracy theory is a sign of something epistemic, we just haven’t really figured out how!

    One philosopher angrily tweeted “Can philosophers pretty please stop acting like
    ‘misinformation’ and ‘conspiracy theory’ are real epistemic concepts worthy of philosophical analysis rather than propaganda terms?”—as if “propaganda” is any better—but this guy was reacting to the FBI director thinking a lab origin of COVID was likely and, sorry for wading into possibly controversial waters, but this is just an example of how conspiracy theories can get hold of elites and even respectable elites! All the supposed evidence that gets cited for the lab leak by your Nate Silvers and Zeynep Tufeckis and FBI directors is, “Gosh, these people are acting suspicious! There is something unexplained here!” and I have seen literally no medical evidence for the lab origin, while there seems to be plenty of evidence for an origin in the wet market, and the CCP acting shady and hiding things is not at all surprising?

    Also not at all surprising: the FBI engaging in conspiracist thinking. They have a track record!

    Which maybe gets at the slipperiness of the concept of “conspiracy theory.” Because it seems like one of the facets of it is believing in conspiracies that are not promulgated by the epistemic authorities in some way. I have sometimes thought that saying that Russia did not hack the Democratic National Committee is a conspiracy theory, because you have to believe that all the law enforcement agencies saying they did are up to something. Which brings me to the conspiracy theory I most believe: A lot of mostly local law enforcement (in the US at least) lie a lot and you should not take their word for things, even though that is usually what is first reported in the press. Because there is a lot of video evidence contradicting that often contradicts their testimony! And they are reasonably often documented working together to cover up the truth. So I’m like, in one sense this isn’t much of a conspiracy theory, in another, well, I’m doubting the main epistemic authorities because of what I take to be a conspiracy! But circling back to my first post, you don’t often get fictional stories about conspiracies like this, because it’s a conspiracy about not looking into things and it’s not an LA Confidential thing where they can discover the sinister forces corrupting the police and root it out. At the end of Serpico the Knapp Commission happens and then, decades later, the NYPD still sucks.

  24. Interesting thoughts regarding epistemological categories. I’m not really qualified to talk about them but I wonder if terrorism is also one that applies? It was toying with making the declaring that ‘conspiracy theory’ is the category term we use to dismiss political thought we consider illegitimate, much as terrorism is the category term we use to dismiss political action we consider illegitimate. I don’t have the courage of conviction here but it’s interesting that Deus Ex is preoccupied with both.

    The DNC Divide was also something I snipped a couple of paras from my original post about. And I just wrote them out again, and deleted them again 😀 I’m sure it says something about the nature of the discourse that I have An Opinion that I both want to share and feel it would be inadvisable to.

  25. I could talk about these things until the end of time, but I’ll add just one thing to what matt w said: there’s also a linguistic problem in English in the way we talk about these things. “Conspiracy” is also a legal term, with a meaning that’s somewhat independent from the “conspiracy theory” meaning. Criminal conspiracies are not necessarily the object of conspiracy theories – again, because we think of the latter in connotative terms rather than descriptive. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously coined the concept of “paranoid style” to describe the mentality (and the epistemology) of conspiracy theories, and while the concept has its problems as an interpretive tool, I think it can be heuristically useful to point at a specific thing. Trying to wrap my head around what I want to say here is convincing me more and more that the distinction between conspiracy theories as paranoid style (let’s call them that) and theories about (criminal or otherwise) conspiracies is in the spiral of theorising. At some point, your considerations about lying police come to a conclusion. The paranoid style doesn’t. I’m simplifying, of course, and there’s also an element of boundary-work in defining something as a conspiracy theory (as CA says), but I think there’s something there that could be explored.

  26. OK, so, since it was put in there specifically to bait me, it will not be on topic when I necro this thread to talk about roguelikes!

  27. I wanted to thank everyone for all the thoughtful comments here. I had meant to post another response but I ended up without enough time and the comments kept going – so there was more to think about and while I was thinking about it there were more comments, and so on.

    Rather than address any of the wonderful points above, I want to share another part of the story that’s missing from the newsletter.

    There are people in my life who have fallen too far into a paranoid mindset and they can be difficult to deal with. After conspiracy theories went large in the wake of Trump and Covid, and seeing what they did to “ordinary people”, I reflected. Maybe it was time to stop signing up for any sort of nonsense just because it agreed with my worldview. So I backed away from more *reaching* positions for which there was scant evidence. The kind of theories which were Sherlocked into being with “there’s just no other explanation”.

    I didn’t want to be like that. Thus, even positions which would have been quite close to my heart a few years ago, now seem distant. I don’t want to be the crazy guy talking about hidden messages in the internet protocol.

    But something was lost; I’ve overcompensated. It’s like a mind yearning to have its wings clipped, frightened that flights of fancy may take it to dark, dead-end caves into which the light of reason might not penetrate. Keep me grounded. It’s safe there.

    And not every outlandish theory is nonsense. “I’m sure they wouldn’t do that.” “They wouldn’t tell that kind of lie.” “It makes more sense that it was just an accident.” Welcome, you’ve now arrived at the conservative mindset. Please stay awhile! You can check out any time you like, but you will never leave.

    Is this what getting old is like?

  28. I have some professional thoughts about that, and also want to necro the thread to talk about roguelikes, and also have a disquisition about those two Bonfire Peaks levels I was having trouble with (which is on topic because it’s in the newsletter) and why I don’t get on with DROD, but I wanted to say: I forgot the solution to Pebble and spent probably at least an hour over the last couple days trying to work it out, and just now I fired it up and did the solution in five seconds, as if I remembered it. But I didn’t!

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